In 2016, during my first trip to Europe alone, I was to fly from London to Madrid with a quick stop in Geneva. However, my flight was delayed at Heathrow and I had missed my connecting flight by 20 minutes. I was stranded in Geneva for one night. Alone, in a country I have never been to, knowing no one.
This is my true story.
. . . .
This was going to be a major problem.
“It’s ok. It’s not far. You can take the bus, it’s only fifteen minutes, and walk around the city.”
I smile at my companion, who I had only met just an hour ago when boarding a flight from London Heathrow bound to Geneva. We studiously ignored each other until the last hour, when I began to inch towards his window seat to see Mount Blanc pass, he gallantly offered to trade spots. With the last remaining thirty minutes of our ride we began to talk, about his work that takes him travelling, and I, who quit everything to deliberately travel.
But when our plane landed, I was faced with two glaring problems. First, I had missed my connecting flight to Madrid. Second, I was also stranded in Switzerland for the night. Frankly, my French Immersion français was getting me nowhere near to Madrid. However, this stranger I met on the flight, heatedly conversed with the airlines for three hours until he secured a hotel and flight for the next day rather than the next flight departing at midnight.
“This is better! You can spend the night in Switzerland and explore. Take advantage of this. Let’s trade numbers, you can text me if you need me. Happy travels!” and he left, like a deus ex machina.
I may have boasted travelling around the world. And I have. But never in an uncontrolled situation like this. I was in a country I didn’t expect to be in, staying at a hotel that was never planned, while not being able to even converse with the taxi driver as I hastily paid him double than expected, wanting to avoid being branded as a touriste. No way was I going to Geneva alone.
I slump into my room feeling shattered. Hungover from my last night in London, and my phone thirsty to be charged (a consequence for late night drinking and last minute packing), all I want to do is bury myself in white cotton and sleep forevermore. I’m not that kind of girl, I thought to debunk my companion’s words. I don’t wander into cities I don’t know. I am the girl who double checks her purse to see if all the zippers are closed. Yet, as I lay in my room, I am struck with guilt. Here I am, in Switzerland by chance, and I was playing it safe by staying at the hotel. Was I really going to let this chance slip? I stare at the hotel clock, letting the minutes pass by. Six thirty…six forty five…seven…
I hastily pocket some euros and my phone before bolting out the door.
“Hi! How can I help you madame?”
I smile at the concierge. “You speak English?” How ignorant of me.
She laughs gaily. “But of course, madame! What could I assist you with?”
I tell her my situation. I have no idea where to go or what to do. My phone is dying, but I can’t waste my one night in Geneva. She smiles.
“Good choice madame.”
She sorts me out. She says she’s able to charge my phone in the hotel office. As for the euros, she gives me sixty francs in return.
“Here,” she says, “all tourists have a free bus pass in Geneva. You can take bus number five downtown. From there, the city is yours to explore!”
Which means, go.
I wander outside the hotel, already forgetting her directions to find the bus stop. This is stupid. I’m not the best with directions, and this is going to get me in a serious mess. Go back. Go back to your room and have a hot shower. If I go in now, I have a few hours to spend in a comfortable bed and switch through as many french television channels as I please.
This thought propels me forward.
A woman walks pass me.
“Excuse me! Do you speak English?”
“Non.” She blankly stares for what’s next.
“Oh. Um, je veux l’autobus. Numero cinq?”
“Ah ouais! La bas!” She explains animatedly, pointing left. I could understand her surprise. I would be too. Little asian girl speaking broken french trying to find her way to the city. Why am I out this late?
I walk fast, already worried about the murders and killers lurking and hiding in the shadows. I see headlights come towards me before turning left. The bus reads five. A burst of worry explodes in my heart. Don’t leave me! I run madly trying to catch the bus. However, it keeps going, leaving me behind in a now empty bus station in a very deserted dark area. I walk around aimlessly, cursing myself for leaving the comforts of the hotel. Here I am, already late, waiting in an empty bus station having already forgotten which station to go to. I didn’t even have my phone to call my french saviour. As I fume at myself, I see a a group of people coming towards the bus stop. I freeze. Here comes a group of serial killers, my mind whirs out of control. Tomorrow morning’s headlines will blaze “Tourist mugged and killed at a deserted bus stop in Geneva.” I stare, see them coming closer, my body drenched with sweat. Just kill me quick, I think.
“Ey! You, where are you from? You speak English?” a boy from the group cocks his head sideways and grins at me. “Where are you from?”
“Uh, oui. I mean yes.” Oh great, good going. They speak English and you decided to talk in French now?
“Ey! She speaks English!” the group titters, as they close in. I shrink, not knowing what was going on. Get me out of here!
“Where are you going?”
I don’t know!
“We’re going downtown. Are you going downtown? We can take you! Don’t worry, we won’t kidnap you.” the boy laughs, sensing my nervousness. “Will we?” “Non! She’s too cute!” the group laughs. I let slip a small smile. They laugh, and as the bus nears the stop, bustles me on.
“So where are you from?” the boy asks as we all settle into our seats.
“I’m from Canada.” I say shyly. The bus rumbles on and so does our conversation.
On our way, they introduce themselves. Most of them are from other European countries, staying in Geneva as international students. No wonder they could speak English flawlessly. When we get downtown, as promised, they drop me off in the city centre of Geneva.
“Come girl! Come have dinner with us, and then we can party until dawn!”
“No thanks.” I smile, sheepishly. “I’ve got a few hours to see Geneva and then I’ve got to head home.”
“Oh come on, come with us!” They try to coerce me but to no avail. When they see I don’t budge, they rapidly start speaking in French. They turn to look at me.
“Then it’s decided! We will take you around town. John will push back our reservations. You will see Geneva at night! And when you see we won’t kidnap you, you can choose to eat with us.” the same boy laughs, and the rest of the group joins. I can’t help but laugh along. Alright, I tell them, you haven’t killed me now I’ll take my chance. They laugh again.
For the next two hours, we venture into the night. We walk through the Old Town of Geneva, past the stunning St. Pierre Cathedral, revelling in the smell of chocolates on the Rue de Rive. Somehow, the group convinces me to take some individual shots by the L’Horloge Fleurie. The only (blurry) photo I have of the night is of myself, taken by the group, laughing and embarrassed as I try to pose in front of the flower clock, sent a few days later with no other message. My mind wheels with delight. Here I am, with a group of strangers, exploring an unknown city in one night. Only a few hours ago, I was debating whether to go outside the hotel in fear of the unknown. That seems like years ago. But magic, and guts, had come into play on this special night in Geneva.
Finally our time comes to a end. The group pleads with me to spend the night with them. Let us party! They laugh. We have not kidnapped you! You must try the fondue and the chocolates! We will dance the night away. Their offers are sweet and insatiable, but I am done. They understand, and walk me towards the bus stop. As the bus rumbles over, they all offer kisses on my cheek, wishing me well on the rest of my travels. I ride home, tired but content.
When I finally come back to the hotel around midnight, the concierge recognizes me and smiles.
“How was Geneva?” She twinkles, like she knows what the night had held for me.
I smile back, “You could never guess.”
I walk towards the elevator, eager to take a long hot shower and jump into bed.
“Madame! Wait!” The concierge runs towards me.
‘Here is your phone. Fully charged.” She waves and walks back to her desk.
When I enter the room, I turn on my phone to an unread text.
“Hi! Hope you got to your hotel safe, were you able to make it to the city?”
Did I ever.